When I was growing up, I attended a Sunday School. Much like many of my friends in suburban America. Some attended Church, others went to Temple, I went to a Mosque. My classes were taught in two parts. 1.) Arabic/Language and 2.) Religion. I learned about heaven and hell and all the Biblical stories of Noah and all the prophets. I learned that my religion had one more prophet and five main beliefs or commonly referred to as ‘pillars’. Ironically I always favored Jesus and my favorite pillar was Fasting. I learned at a young age that many people don’t have food and what it is like to go without food and water from sun up till sundown for a lunar cycle. It was tough. Still is.
I was about 6 years old, I never heard of Shia/Sunni I never heard of Jihad or ‘virgins in heaven’. I learned basic tales of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, about how the devil can tempt you, and how you should be kind to all humans and animals.
I thought it was cool that I was from a place where people spoke a different language, at different foods, and had different customs. And costumes. Sometimes my mom or grandparents used to dress us in different garments from regions all over the Middle East to engage in intercultural events within the Greater Boston Community. I remember going to churches, and temples, and other monasteries as if I belonged there as well. My grandfather was (and still is) a huge advocate and leading figure in the Interfaith Community. Every Thanksgiving we went to a church service for an Interfaith prayer. I also loved that my religion was representative of so many races. When Eid Prayer would come twice a year, I recall seeing people of all creeds. My ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ came from all over the world! Black, Asian, Pakastani, White converts — you name it. I was young and naïve.
To be honest I have no idea what happened. After 9/11 everything changed. By age 13, I left Sunday School after taking a multiple choice test my ‘born again’ (yes they exist in Islam too) religion teacher came up with that decided whether we’d go to heaven or hell. Turns out I was going to hell. My mom was really upset that the teacher even created such an exam. I mean who was she (the teacher) to judge? Adolescence is a weird age to begin with, and having identity issues of being an Arab American in a time of terror was not too helpful.
(N.B. This is NOT a means to victimize myself or have a boo-hoo story. The real victims are ALL those who have been prosecuted or died as a result for simply being themselves)
In the next years I just remembered how upsetting it was to feel at the butt end of the stick for something I never signed up for. The ‘War on Terror’ was in full effect and I just remember always being cautious about what I said or did. I hung out with punks and skaters, but made sure I was still a law-abiding citizen. I had a passion for graffiti but had an added fear of being caught. Not because of what I thought the cops would do, I would hope they would act very professionally (and not wrangle a child who built a clock). But I wanted to be a good representation of my culture. Seeing all this hate in the news. So much tragedy. In any instance there was a shooting or terrorist attack, I cringed when the person was linked to being ‘my kind of brown’. I even started having a self-hatred, I didn’t like other people that looked like me. Or, when I would see other Arabs in public or at a mall, speaking in Arabic loudly and for example if some women in their group wore a hijab, I would flee to anywhere. I wanted to be sure I wasn’t associated with them, and felt ashamed if I looked like I was. I hated when people asked me where I was from.* It’s just an odd thing to feel resentment for. But I started to realize how things kind of work in America. In 2nd grade, I was so confused to why my teacher didn’t like me and it became such an issue that I had to change classes. Perplexed as a 9 year old, it wasn’t until years later I realized the teacher was just racist.
One of my Danish friends said I was the ‘Whitest Arab’ he knew. I was a bit taken aback. Did I purposefully whitewash myself all these years? When I would change my name from Samer to Sam in job applications what was I really doing for myself and my heritage? Sure I did that trick when ordering food, but that was just for convenience. Everyone with a foreign name knows that story.
My father is a very religious man. Which is funny, because I drink alcohol, have tattoos, and recently returned back from a trip to Vegas. All of those are very ‘Haram’. My father is the most harmless person I know. He doesn’t even kill insects, but rather gathers them and places them back outside. He really finds peace in his religion. That is his right. As an American AND as a Human. But for some reason being a devote Muslim sounds eerily worse than being a devote Christian.
But going back to my teachings as a young child. I learned that my religion was about a connection to you and god. I never cared what anyone else thought. I know my heart is in the right place. And I think most secular Muslims respect that. And I think most educated people get that these horrid cases are not representative of a whole group of people, and yet it is as if we are in this wave of perpetuated terror where things are seeming to get worse and worse. The vilification of Arabs has been around way before September 11th. Look at who the ‘bad guys’ are in most cartoons and movies. During the Cold War for example, we mocked Russians (i.e. Boris and Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle). Our country unfortunately feeds off a public enemy number one. Right now, it is an Arab Man. Which for me, manifests in such ways like how I need to shave my beard every time I travel. But I get it. I am usually traveling by myself and have a passport filled with visas from everywhere from Iceland to Russia. I am not a threat. And neither are those billions of other Muslims you don’t see. Who just go on about their daily life. Have jobs and families. Like to go the movies, and hell, maybe even enjoy a glass of wine.
But there’s another layer to that. It’s a convenience thing. It is more convenient for me to appear like I have no association to my heritage. My last name used to be Al-Khudairi, but I legally changed it. Of course I am a proud American and as much as I hate war, I have had many friends serve this great country. And perhaps to all of you it’s not a big deal. You like me because you like me. I just so happen to have a different skin tone, and my Dad has a ‘silly’ accent. But internalizing all this didn’t feel healthy and I thought I just needed to write it down. What also is not healthy is the fact that there are people who don’t really rationalize things. And instead, act on hate and fear.
I can already admit that this is not as concise as I had hoped and that I may have been unsure in making a deliberate point but I do know this.
Love will prevail.
That I am certain.